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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Date to Remember...

One of the disadvantages of using a blog as a venue for unwritten chapters is that I rarely write about “current things” so as not to lose the thread of whatever storyline holds the chapters together. When I do write about current life, it’s usually by way of explanation for why I haven’t had time to write. In spite of this flaw in my current format, kind feedback prods me on in this pleasant pastime.

A few weeks ago, Quilly, our blogging friend in Hawaii, wrote this about Patterns of Ink:

"Those of you who haven’t been following this blog don’t know what you have missed! Tom is writing his family history, chapter-by-chapter and sharing it on the web. It is an enchanting and compelling story of a family of faith and their lives as they struggled together to build the family home that is now, sadly, for sale. Tom is not your typical blogger, nor is he your typical writer. His stories are definitely worth your time."

Thanks, Quilly, your endorsement read like one of those big-name quotes on the back cover of a book jacket.

I say all that to say that those "Unsettled" chapters will continue, but I simply cannot let a date I had with my wife last night go without mention here at POI.

In recent comment sections and posts, I’ve hinted that I have been busy with a big project in our back yard that has left me worn out by nightfall. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me it has been the kind of physical labor my brothers and I did on Saturday’s with Dad forty years ago, and the kind of back-breaking toil Dad still did at my age without the crippling side effects. Even now, my arms and hands are sore as I type. So it was very good that circumstances took me away from my “extreme home makeover” project.

Yesterday, Julie and I brought our youngest daughter to Chicago—directly to Midway Airport.—to catch a flight to Kansas where she will spend a week with her grandparents (Julie’s folks) in Kansas. It’s a highlight of her year to spend time with them and some of her cousins there. Anyway, since we had to go to Chicago, Julie and I decided to make a “date” of it. Here’s the exciting part….

Last night, we went to the Oriental Theater at the Ford Center and saw the stage production of Fiddler on the Roof. Wait… it gets even better…. Guess who’s playing the lead role of Tevye? Topol himself! Yes, Topol. If you’ve seen the film version of this wonderful story, you’ve seen the unbelievable Oscar-nominated performance of Topol as the talk-to-God-out-loud, cart pulling poor milk man from Anitevka. Well guess what, he is just as good on the live stage. (He is now 74, has performed this roll live now over 2,500 times in theaters around the world, but is now making his farewell tour.)

Julie and I were caught up in every scene and song of the nearly three-hour show, which we know by heart.

It seems like Fiddler on the Roof has been a recurring theme throughout our life. A few years after Julie and I were first married, her father bought a video record player. Not a VCR--this was just before VCRs hit the consumer market and long before DVDs were invented. A video record player was about the size of four stacked pizza boxes with records the size of phonograph albums. The users inserted the record into a slot in the front of the player. Julie’s Dad had only a handful of video records. The Black Stallion was one of them and Fiddler on the Roof was another. (Actually Fiddler on the Roof was a two-album set.). That is the way I saw this film for the first time—not at the theater—but in my in-laws living room.

[Most of that film, incidentally, was filmed in Croatia where our middle daughter Kim is on a TESL mission until August. It is Kim who is typically our reason for coming here to Chicago during the school year.]

Through the years, we watched that musical together many times at Julie's house. Her father could relate to Tevye. Not only is he a hard working pastor/farmer who more than once has had a lame horse, and pulled carts around their barnyard... he also had three daughters of marrying age, the first of which had recently married me. (In that sense, I guess I’m Motel, the poor tailor whose love for Tevye’s daughter saves her from an arranged marriage with Lazar Wolfe, the butcher.) [Years later, I too, had three daughters; and I too have one married recently. Now it is Keith who is the poor tailor.]

So fond were we of this story's plot line, that sixteen years ago, when Julie and I lived in Iowa, we took a trip up to Chanhassen, MN, (famous for its dinner theater) to see it performed live on stage. It was an excellent production, and it stirred a desire to direct the play myself the following year at our school. I was teaching high school English at the time, and had been directing annual stage productions for over ten years, but none so ambitious as Fiddler on the Roof.

I had a remarkable talent pool in the seventy or so students who each year tried out for our productions. And I had a perfect couple who I thought I could talk into the lead rolls of Tevye and Golde: Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Nelson. Bruce was our band director and his wife taught music in a neighboring district. I’d heard them sing together and knew they could pull it off. I had never used adults in a previous production, but in this case the other lead rolls were also huge and I needed their talent and experience to anchor this huge reach for our small school with only about 150 in the high school.

Bruce and Bev agreed to the performance months before I announced the title to the school, and they secretly began working on this daunting task. By the time rehearsals began, the two leads had their parts well in hand, and the entire cast knew they were a becoming part of something that would be really good. It was during these months of preparation that I grew the beard I have had ever since. You see, I was Bruce’s understudy. I knew the script by heart. I knew the character. I could sing (not as well as Bruce but so-so), and I stepped into the Tevye part whenever Bruce was not at rehearsal. The students rose to the occasion as well, performing far beyond the level of any high school production I have ever seen anywhere from schools many times our size. I know I was very close to this situation, but I believe that is an objective statement of fact. All three nights of this sold-out performance got standing ovations. It was the biggest show I ever directed. (I should add that Julie was always my assistant and another friend, Renee, always helped with music and choreography whenever we did musicals.)

Of course, “directing” a play in a small school means you also oversee every aspect of the production—costumes, lighting, ticket sales, and set design and construction. It is this last aspect that ties into our “Unsettled” chapters.

I was still finishing the construction of some set pieces when Dad and Mom arrived to our Iowa school from Michigan. They always made the trip west to see our school plays. I’ll never forget it. I was building the trees for the background silhouette scene of the song “Little Bird, Little Chavela.” [video clip at end of post] I looked up and there was Dad smiling down at me on the floor.

“Still makin’ sawdust just two days before opening?” He chuckled.

I got up and gave him a hug. They had arrived a few hours ahead of schedule and came directly to the school rather than to our house a few blocks away. It gave my father great pleasure to see me using the tools he had introduced me to in such creative ways. This was the first time he had arrived early enough to see me in the last phase of set construction, but each year he always helped us “strike the set” after closing night.

It will come as no surprise to those who read here that it gave me great personal satisfaction to have my mom and dad witness this part of my job each year. It’s true that we should all do our jobs well for many reasons. Teachers especially should strive for their personal best each day for the sake of their students, but I confess… knowing my parents would be there to see the productions my students and I put on each year was a huge motivation for making them the absolute best that they could be. Seeing my Dad work with kids he barely knew (he always knew some of them from the years before) as we took down the set was always a joy. And seeing my mom, always the talker who knew no strangers, interacting with the cast during that same process, always made my students feel like they knew the real me… the part of me that was once a kid, the part of me that had parents…. not just the "grown-up" teacher part of me.

I was 39 the year we did Fiddler on the Roof. Little did I know it was the last play of mine my father would ever see. One year later, with just a few weeks left of rehearsals before opening night 1995, I got the word that my father had died of a heart attack. We went home for the funeral, and a few weeks later my cast pulled off a wonderful performance of Charlotte’s Web. Needless to say, the scene where Charlotte dies was very hard for me to watch from the back of the auditorium.

It was because of this trip to Midway Airport in Chicago that we could not be at the last day of the estate sale at our homestead five hours the other way (near Detroit).

A few hours before curtain, I had called my siblings who did spend some time at the sale. They said it went well, and yes, there were mixed feeling as they watched things being carted off.

So on the evening of our estate sale of all evenings, you can imagine what a profound experience it was for Julie and I to sit in one of the most beautiful theaters in America to see Topol himself performing in this musical that seems forever entwined in our life... to be reminded of the importance of tradition and faith and change… and moving on… leaving home… leaving the “things” of life behind while holding tight to those around you. All this and more was going through my mind as I held my wife’s hand in that dark theater. It was truly a date to remember...

We’re staying in Chicago an extra day… so it may be a couple more days before the next chapter is posted. Thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, enjoy these two clips from the film version of this musical. Topol is just as good 38 years later.

If you want to watch other scenes, see “related videos” at this Youtube page.


Blogger the walking man said...

My daughter and grand daughter saw Topol when he played in Detroit a couple of months ago. I wonder if my grand kid will remember her first "live" show with the fondness you relate here.

22/6/09 8:16 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I didn't know the tour played in Detroit. It was really good. Julie and I kept talking about it yesterday.

22/6/09 9:24 AM  
Anonymous quilly said...

Thank you for the kind words -- and mine about you should have sounded like a professional blurb. If they hadn't my college writing teachers would have been rescinding my grades!

Indeed, it does seem as though this opportunity to see the film came at exactly the right time. God's gifts always do!

And, since the story of Fiddler on the Roof is all about tradition and change, I am not so certain that this was a break in the continuum.

22/6/09 8:26 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

It sounds like you and Julie both needed and enjoyed your trip to Chicago.
I am sure that the estate sale would have to be emotional in ways - like a final good bye.
Thanks for sharing and allowing us in the blog sphere to look into your life through your wonderful writing talent.

22/6/09 10:58 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Your writing professors would be very pleased with your continued use of a fine craft.

When we got the tickets for the musical, I did not realize how much that old plot line tied into my feelings on that particular day.

I felt bad missing the sale. It was originally set for the previous weekend. Then we got the airline tickets for Nat and the show tickets for Fiddler and then the date of the sale changed and we couldn't change the tickets. It worked out, but I think the next time I step into the house and see it completely empty... it will hit me.

23/6/09 11:12 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

I'm sitting here, catching up on blogging, in my room at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago and I find out you were here one week ago doing some of the same things I'm doing this week. How interesting is that? I really love this post because it brought back memories of the times my dad would visit my classroom. Those thoughts bring some really fond memories.

I'm glad you and Julie had a few special days together but also understand how hard it must have been to miss the estate sale. God has a way of working those things out.

I'm in Chicago while Joe is attending a Hospital Board conference and this is my first time to explore and have fun, as he sits in seminars all day. It is a delightful city and I remember so many things that you've mentioned about your visits here in your past posts. The Taste of Chicago is going on with some great concerts and I just feel blessed to be here.

I haven't blogged much lately. The preschool is still consuming so much of my time, and then there is still my mom and the twins. I have hired a new director for the preschool but we are finding so many problems. Maybe even some embezzlement which is creating numerous headaches. I am shocked with some of the things that are cropping up but I'm thankful to get the preschool back to its Christian roots, even though it is time consuming.

I hope all is fine with your girls and that you are having a great summer. I hope to catch up at some point and really be retired...like I'm suppose to be.

29/6/09 9:34 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Fiddler is one of the best memories I have of my high school years - thanks for that. It was an absolute honor to work with Bruce and Bev, and I'm so thankful for the friendship between us that has grown since then. I'm glad you had the chance to see the "real" Tevye, although I don't think, for me, anyone will ever embody that role like Bruce.

A blessing on your head -

Betsey (Grandma T)

6/7/09 10:07 PM  
Anonymous Jim T said...

Wow, Fiddler on the Roof brings back so many memories. I remember playing Lazar Wolf like it was yesterday. Bruce and Bev were great, but I also remember those great moments when you had to step in during rehearsals. Lots of fun and some great laughs too. At the time, I knew that Tevye was to be played by Bruce, but I secretly wanted to play that role.... So many great memories of you and Julie.

7/7/09 2:48 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I was away from internet for over a week but I trust you got my reply to this. Chicago is a great city to visit and Kim loves living there for months at a time, but I'm happy to say she still prefers home in West Michigan.

I hope you don't mind me calling you Betsy. You were one of the coolest scenes of the production. "Folks, she was in the dream scene where Grandma T. comes back to say Tevye's daughter should marry the tailor. It's all a "fib," of course.

A blessing on your head, too.

You were great at Lazar and if any student could have pulled off the lead it was you, but I was nervous about my ability to direct such a big production on such a small stage and getting Bruce and Bev "on board" early gave me the confidence to proceed. Thanks for understanding way back then. It was a delight to work with them as a couple and with all the other leads.

To all cast members who may read this. Sometimes it takes years for a truly wonderful experience to crystalize into a jem that you can hold up to the light and say, "Wasn't that a beautiful thing." Fiddler and so many other productions we did together are like that to me.

8/7/09 11:43 AM  

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